Monday, February 25, 2008

La Pasadita

I was never a big fan of Mexican food. I just didn’t have very much exposure to good, authentic Mexican food growing up I guess. New York is notorious for its dearth of great, authentic Mexican cuisine, and I think it should go without saying that Montreal doesn’t have the most thriving Mexican dining scene - fancy, casual, whatever.

Chicago really changed my mind. The Mexican population in Chicago is the largest in the nation after Los Angeles, so it should come as no surprise that the Mexican food here would be better than I could find at home.

My newfound love for the cuisine can really be traced back to one establishment. Until I tried La Pasadita, my mind had not yet been blown by Mexican food. The fact that I now crave Mexican food, whereas prior to my time in Chicago it was hard to even convince me to have Mexican, is a true testament to the food at La Pasadita.

I started Law School on a no-red-meat kick that lasted all the way through this past November. I know – you’re probably asking yourself – the girl moves to Chicago of all places – the arguable red meat capital of the world – and swears off the stuff. I have no real reason for my choice in doing so other than that I just kind of lost my taste for it for a while there. I would see a big fat steak on a plate and have no desire to tear into it.

Because of this voluntary restriction, I would order the chicken taco at every Mexican place I patronized. This could probably explain why it took me so long to catch the Mexican wave. Other chicken tacos came to me as nothing more than a pile of low-grade dark meat sadly served beneath a spattering of cilantro and onions. Though I’m admittedly not a dark meat lover, I feel safe saying that the quality of the meat is just not that great – dark meat or not.

However, La Pasadita’s chicken is an incredible victory. I don’t think I am speaking in hyperbole when I say that the chicken served at this inconspicuous joint in the Bucktown neighborhood is among the very best chicken served in the city of Chicago.

Breast meat usually gets a bad rap, often deservedly so, as unless served on the bone, beneath a thicket of skin and roasted perfectly, the meat has little chance of remaining juicy. The meat here though, it’s another story altogether. I’m not sure what it is that they do to it, but I am – without fail – always presented a touchdown of a taco – filled to the brim with incredibly flavorful, but in no way overly salty, unbelievably moist cubes of chicken breast. Perhaps it is just that it is cooked on the same grill as all of their meat that endows it with this flavor, but whatever it is, I can only hope that they continue to do it exactly as they have been.

The carne asada is another winner. On my last visit I found my carne asada taco a bit too greasy, and I have heard some complaints that the meat is over-salted on occasion, but for the most part, this is good stuff - tender and unabashedly flavorful.

That giant mound of meat you see above is the Parrilladas Especial, a pile of chicken, carne asada, sausage, short ribs, green peppers and onions. Rice, refried beans and a stack of warm tortillas accompanied the monstrous cast-iron contraption, kept warm by a heating element below. Meant to feed three to four, the leftovers made for some delicious nachos at 3 a.m. At $20 for the regular and $25 for the Especial, the Parilladas are, by far, the most expensive item on the menu, but it can feed the table.

There are three Pasaditas located on the block just south of Division, one on the east side of Ashland and two on the west. While investigating this online, I found the following interesting tidbit – the larger restaurant-style Pasadita was created to cater to the yuppie crowd with Tex-Mex cuisine. I’ve had Tex-Mex though, which was much of the reason for my aforementioned lack of affinity for the cuisine, and this is so much better than that stuff. That said, the menu does include a few items added specifically for the non-Mexican customers that came in droves once the area became gentrified (the website notes the vegetarian burrito in particular).

Tacos run from $1.55-$2.00, and a super taco (lettuce, tomato, guacamole, sour cream, onions, cilantro, cheese) goes for $3.00. I take mine with just onions and cilantro, and, of course, a good douse of green sauce. To me, that’s as good as it gets. Simple, no-frills, delicious.

I usually stick to the tacos, though friends rave of the burritos. A recent 1 a.m. visit confirmed my suspicion that burritos are just too much for me. I enjoy the simplicity of the tacos, as the flavor of the meat is given the opportunity to pop and mingle with the onions and cilantro, without being overwhelmed by guacamole and cheese. One thing is for sure, though, burritos here are not light on the meat, as is the case in many other establishments that opt for the cost-saving rice-stuffing route.

Once a little-known, barebones establishment, the secret has long been out - and for good reason. Gourmet this ain’t, but it sure is great.

La Pasadita
1132 N. Ashland (just south of Division)
Chicago, IL 60622

Other locations:

1140 N. Ashland

1141 N. Ashland

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Recipe for a Delicious Day

I’m sure by now you’ve all had it up to here with Valentine’s stuff, but I was away for the weekend and you’re going to have to deal with one more. It's been almost a week, after all. The intellectual part of me is insulted by the whole idea of Valentine’s Day - that executive bigwigs think I will fall into their commercial trap - but there is a part of me that cannot resist the romanticism of the whole thing. Any day that gives me a reason to cook a wonderful meal with the person I love is okay in my book, after all.

The whole idea of eating out in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day doesn’t much appeal to me. I don’t get the point of ordering from an over-priced, shortened menu on an evening when every restaurant is overcrowded when you can create a wonderful meal on your own, share in the experience of actually making a meal and eat at your own pace, especially when that meal can be consumed looking out over your boyfriend’s balcony to this view:

Cooking a meal together is the kind of thing that sounds great in theory – romantic and involved with an end product that you know will just taste better because you’ve made it together. Last year when we attempted the “togetherness” cooking, it turned out to be nothing more than an ideal. He helped me peel potatoes for a gratin and I asked him to put the lobsters in the pot of boiling water so I didn’t have to feel personally responsible for their death. Outside of that though, I rebuffed his offers to help and the meal, while no less lovely, was not truly a meal created by both of us.

This time, however, things were different. We truly did cook together. And you know what? It really did taste better. He seared the scallops perfectly; creating a gorgeous crust that so graciously complemented the barely-cooked middle. The risotto was lovingly stirred and attended to by each of us throughout its cooking time. We stood together and rolled and sealed dumplings – it was all just really, really fun. And it was that much more enjoyable, knowing that the meal tasted as great as it did because we both played our role creating something indulgent and wonderful.

Recipe for a Delicious Day

Dinner usually is not usually prepared for an occasion, and for many reasons usually doesn’t result in more than just one course. But when there’s an occasion, there’s a reason for a first course and a dessert – and for ingredients you might not be inclined to buy on just any normal weeknight.

We started with fresh mozzarella accompanied by both fresh and lightly roasted cherry tomatoes. I just tossed the tomatoes with some olive oil, salt and pepper and threw them into a 375 degree oven until they just popped. I cut one end off of a couple of cloves of garlic and poured some olive oil over them and they went along for the ride with the tomatoes until they were softened. Some fresh ground pepper, a bit of salt, olive oil and vinegar and our first course was done – simple, elegant and delicious.

I had tried to work with a request for something “exotic” for the main course. After throwing ideas back and forth, we settled on a recipe for sea scallops with risotto. Not really exotic, but also not something I would usually splurge for, both in terms of time and money.

Seared Sea Scallops with Wild Mushroom Risotto
Adapted from Tyler Florence

1 onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 pound assorted mushrooms, such as Portobello, crimini, and shiitake, stemmed
Leaves from a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 bay leaves
1 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
4-6 cups canned chicken stock, heated and kept warm in a pot on the stove
1 tablespoons butter
1/4 to 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Parsley, for garnish

2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 - 1 pound sea scallops (depending on how hungry you are), crescent-shaped muscles removed and discarded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Over medium heat in a large, deep skillet (we used a saucepot and it worked fine), drizzle in about one and a half to two tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes until soft. Toss in the mushrooms and herbs and cook until the mushrooms lose their liquid and are lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the rice and stir 2 minutes to coat with the oil; the grains will turn opaque. Season again with salt and pepper. Stir in the wine and cook about 1 minute to reduce.

Add 1 cup of the warm stock and stir until the rice has absorbed mostly all of the liquid. Add another cup of stock and stir until pretty much all absorbed. Repeat this process, one cup at a time until the risotto is slightly firm yet creamy, at which point it is done. Note that you might not need all of the broth. When the risotto is cooked, fold in the butter and cheese until combined.

Toward the end of the risotto’s cooking time, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper and sear until well browned on both sides – about 2-3 minutes.

Spoon the risotto into bowls and top with scallops. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately.

Serves 2

Strawberry Dumplings with Poppy Seed Crust
Adapted from Delicious Days, June 30, 2007

Now we’re not big dessert people, him even less so than me, but I had been eyeing these strawberry dumplings for a few weeks, and, if nothing else, Valentine’s Day gave me the reason to make them.

The original recipe calls for squeezed poppy seeds, which I couldn’t find. We tried to crush them for a while, but the seeds just wouldn’t grind down at all. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I would suggest not covering the entire dumpling with the seeds, since the taste and the texture are overwhelming.

The original recipe also calls for curd, which is something not really found in the states. However, internet research led me to quark, which apparently is the same thing. It’s not the most common of cheese products, but I found some in Whole Foods made by the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company.

The dumplings were pretty good, though I’m sure I could use a bit more practice in the business of quark-based dough.

112.5g all-purpose flour plus more for kneading
A pinch of salt
22.5 g white sugar
1 large egg
22.5 g butter
Zest of 1 lemon
225g quark
11-12 mid-sized fresh strawberries
Sugar for filling
Poppyseeds for coating (ground if available)
Confectioner’s sugar

Wash and hull strawberries and allow to dry on a paper towel. Cut each strawberry in half.

In a big bowl cream together flour, salt, sugar, egg, butter, lemon zest and curd. (You will be left with a smooth but sticky dough. Cover dough and let rest for at least half an hour.

Knead in some more flour a couple of tablespoons at a time until the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers any more and you can work with it easily. Be sure to add only as much flour as you really need to keep the dough from sticking, since less flour will lead to a lighter dough.

Knead dough briefly, roll into a log and cut it in 10 to 12 equally sized slices. Slightly flour your hands and form each slice into a little disc. Place two strawberry halves on top of each disc and top with a pinch of sugar. Wrap the strawberry with the dough and pinch together to form a neat little dumpling. Double check to make sure that the strawberries are completely covered by the dough in order to guarantee that the juices stay inside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and carefully slip the dumplings into the water one at a time. Stir once to make sure the dumplings don’t stick. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 to 12 minutes until they are done (they should begin to float). When cooked, remove with a skimmer.

Roll the dumplings in a bowl filled with poppy seeds until evenly covered. Dust dumplings with some confectioner’s sugar, drizzle with hot, just melted butter and enjoy. The butter might seem a bit unnecessary, but it really makes all the difference.

Makes 10-12 dumplings.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Pasta Tragedy; Horseradish Hero

From time to time I come across a recipe that advertises itself as being time consuming. That’s not always a turn-off for me, though. For instance, I came across another Jacques Pépin recipe the other day and immediately went to the stove and spent what would end up being over two and a half hours composing a chicken and peanut stew (about which I will tell you all just a little bit later). Was it worth it? I think so – because I knew how long it was going to take going into it, the ingredients were relatively few, and the time it took was largely inactive, playing dominoes and watching television while the stew practically cooked itself. Yes I had to cut a few things here and there, but I find this chopping rather soothing.

Sometimes, however, there are recipes that take a lot longer than they taste like they should have taken. I stumbled upon one such recipe not too long ago. I was searching the epicurious database when I stumbled upon a recipe misleadingly entitled “salmon with orecchiette, caramelized onions and horseradish cream sauce.” The salmon was not tossed with the pasta, but served alongside it. But I love literally every component of this dish, so I figured I could not go wrong. I went to three different grocery stores in search of broccoli rabe (a vegetable that could very well be my single favorite food on planet earth), but my searches proved futile. It was not to be - I found none. I had read in the comments to the recipe on epicurious that a few people had replaced the broccoli rabe with broccoli with excellent results, and while I was skeptical, I followed suit. I was thisclose to plucking a bunch of arugula from the produce aisle, but I followed the road that was tried and - or so I thought - true.

So I began cooking – chopping, cooking, caramelizing onions. Yes, it smelled great, and yes, caramelized onions are awesome, but the end result was not really worth the process.

The pasta lacked depth - though it had the sweetness of the onions, it lacked the bitterness of the broccoli rabe, the very trait of the vegetable that enamours me so. It was totally divorced from the flavors of the salmon, since the bitter spiciness of the horseradish would have given reason for the broccoli rabe sitting next to it. The broccoli brought nothing to the dish. Even if I made the pasta on its own again, I would never dream of making it with anything but broccoli rabe (I guess I could give in to arugula since it has a spice to it as well). It was quite sad, all of it - a pasta with so much promise, falling so far short of its potential.

But the horseradish saved the day. Because of it, the salmon tale had a much happier ending. Cooked to perfection and drizzled with a deceptively simple horseradish sauce, its flavors were accentuated, rather than muted. While the pile of pasta sitting next to it had no place being there, the horseradish sauce was perfect. I mean, the combination is classic for a reason.

Salmon with Horseradish Cream Sauce
Bon Appetit, June 2003

This sauce is really great, and can be put to a plethora of uses. Try it over some roast beef or on a sandwich; or served with smoked salmon or trout; even as a dipping sauce for potato chips or french fries.

The sauce can be refrigerated, but when reheating make sure to heat it in a saucepan over low-moderate heat until it’s simmering. I would advise against heating it in the microwave, since it will likely separate.

2 cups whipping cream
1 8-ounce bottle clam juice
3 tablespoons prepared white horseradish

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 skin-on salmon filets

Boil cream and clam juice in heavy large saucepan until reduced to 1 cup, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk in horseradish and season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.

In a skillet over high heat, heat the olive oil. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Add salmon to skillet, skin side up and cook until fish is browned – about 3 minutes. Turn the salmon over and cook until nicely browned and just opaque, about 3 more minutes.

Remove salmon from heat and drizzle with horseradish sauce to taste.


Have a very happy Valentine’s Day!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Keeping the Troops at Bay

There are some classics that I would eat every day if I felt my body would not revolt up against me. One of those things is linguine in clam sauce. It’s a simple dish, and one that I ate obsessively as a child in Italian joints across Brooklyn. It’s the type of thing I would love to eat at least two, three, no - four times a month, had I no fear that this sort of frequency would result with unrest within.

I can see it now: my stomach amassing a group of rebel organs that would march towards a victorious coup d’état in my body, their strident and hard-willed desire for change within my inner workings unfettered by the gallons of oil I have sent into my system in a futile effort to stymie their progress.

Because I have the utmost respect for my body, or at least am realistic in my understanding of its power over my day-to-day functions, I do not indulge in such a reckless manner. But – thank goodness, that doesn’t mean that I am to be without my linguine and clam sauce. Hell, that doesn’t even mean that I can’t add salami to my dish.

I’m a rebel, though a reasonable one, which some may very well argue is not a rebel at all. So be it. I’m going to eat my linguine and clam sauce, but I’m going to do it so as not to upset the potential troops within. I’m not going to deny myself these pleasures, but I see no problem with appeasing my body by making them a little bit healthier. My mind can also relax knowing that the chance of rebellion south of my neck has been dutifully minimized.

Linguine with Clams and Salami
From Melissa Rubel, Food & Wine, February 2008

This is an incredibly simple dish and it takes almost no time at all to put together. The chopping is minimal, and the most labor-intensive task is scrubbing the clams. The sauce is put together in less time than it takes the pasta to cook, so this is really a fabulous weeknight meal. Serve with some crusty bread to sop up the goodness of the sauce. We used a multigrain baguette from Red Hen; while a simple crusty french baguette might have been the more fitting choice, the multigrain did the trick, and kept my organs at bay.

I characteristically misplaced my Genoa before I started cooking and used a hard salami instead; this worked out pretty well, but I’m convinced not nearly as well as the Genoa would have, since its texture was a bit too substantial for the rest of the dish, which seemed almost delicate in comparison.

12 ounces linguine (spaghetti, thin fettuccine; really any long pasta with substantial bite will work, but linguine is traditional)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 medium-sized garlic cloves or 2 large, thinly sliced
2 ½ dozen littleneck clams, cleaned and scrubbed
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup bottled clam broth
3 ounces sliced Genoa salami, cut into 1/2-inch strips
1/2 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook to al dente. Drain.

While the pasta is cooking in a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook over moderate heat until lightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add the crushed red pepper, clams and wine and bring to a boil. Add the clam broth, cover and cook over moderate heat until the clams open, about 5 minutes. (Note: I used a larger stockpot, which worked just fine. If you are to do the same just be aware that the cooking time is going to increase; don’t get scared that the clams are no good, it took a good 5-8 minutes for all of my clams to open. If your pot is really large it might take up to ten for them all to open).

Add the linguine, salami and parsley to the clam sauce and toss over low heat until combined. Transfer the linguine to shallow bowls and serve immediately.

Serves 4